Autumn has now really set in and here in rural France it is a time of changing weather and changing scenery in the surrounding countryside. The local farmers are out working from dawn until late into the night to get the maize crop harvested. This involves massive harvesting machines with very big teeth and the ability to throw the cut maize into the trailers that are pulled along beside them. The maize is for winter feed for the cattle and is taken back to the farms and stored under vast plastic sheeting held down with very large tractor tyres.

Of course the fact that the maize is being cut down means that whole fields full of maize are now empty and this reveals once again areas that have been hidden from view of the past 4 months. It opens up views of the countryside and returns to view some of the small hamlets and farm buildings that you forget were even there.

It also means that there are large fields where the cover for small animals has been removed making these happy hunting grounds for the local birds of prey. The number of kestrels must be at its maximum and all along the road from here to Ambrieres there are kestrels sat on telegraph wires surveying these empty fields for mice and voles. In addition in the still warm autumn sun the buzzards circle low above the fields also looking for their share of the rich booty. We have the buzzards also circling over our grounds, calling to each other as they watch for prey.

At night there is increased owl activity and we hear and sometimes see tawny owls and little owls. There is increased activity from our cats and Moggie is forever disappearing off into the fields in search of mice to supplement his diet. Archie too has been tempted to go off and do some hunting. Minou is above all that and would not lower herself to go out into the fields! Although they seem to forget the mice closer to home and there is still one in the woodshed and on the compost bin. I have now moved my bird food bin to the safety of our lean to shed next to the house. So far the mice have either not been willing to risk a dash across open ground or they have found something else.

Autumn also brings one of the great delights for a bird watcher, the sight of a hen harrier floating ghostlike across the bare fields, quartering the field as it hunts. On Friday coming back from Ambrieres I saw a male hen harrier hunting in a field and had to stop the car to watch. Male hen harriers are a beautiful white and grey and because of that do have a ghostly look. They fly quite close to the ground when hunting and constantly go back and forth until they catch something.

The swallows have now all gone as the wind changed and there was a favourable wind to help them with their long migration to Africa. They were a week or two later going than last year. It will not be long before the winter birds start to arrive with fieldfares and redwings moving in to feast on the autumn berries as they arrive. There is always something happening with the local wildlife as the seasons change.

Of course this is no different for our local La Godefrere wildlife and as the evenings shorten and it gets a bit colder the cats begin to adapt their behaviour. Now when they come in for breakfast at 7-30 they reckon they need a bit of a warm up and that means that I become a sitting target as I have my early morning cup of tea and have three cats descend on me to have a cuddle. Moggie arrives first and throws himself across me and has to fidget about for a while until he finds the right spot and then he falls straight to sleep. Minou picks her spot, usually on my chest and settles down quickly. Then dear old Archie arrives and has to take whatever space is left. Unfortunately for me Archie has to prepare his spot by pawing his allotted space with his rather large claws. Even with a dressing gown on this is a bit like acupuncture. The end result is I have three cats draped on me and I am unable to reach my cup of tea.

So it begins the winter madness!

In the evenings the cast arrive over an hour before supper time. I keep telling then that three meals a day is excessive for cats and that supper is a luxury. It has no effect and they murmur about custom and practice and that as it is now winter they should be able to come in early. So about half an hour before they come in and settle down to a half an hour of intimidation until I weaken and give them some cat crunchies for supper. We quickly lock the door and pull the curtains over to avoid any further cat waif and stray impressions. And it is not even cold yet. It could be a long, long winter.

Look how we have to huddle up its so cold

The chickens on the other hand have been very cooperative and we have had no instances of escaping for over two weeks. It could be that they are plotting something and lulling our senses. It could be they are sulking over the Tom Cruise no show. It is hard to tell what chickens are thinking. But they continue to do their job and the eggs keep on coming, which is a good thing.

The final thing to report on autumn is the fact that as well as birds of prey being at their maximum population so are French tractors. Everywhere you go there are tractors. The great big ones pulling trailers to collect the maize. Medium size ones to do all the moving earth, shovelling manure jobs and the smaller ancient ones which  just seem to be driven around by equally ancient French farmers. It is amazing how they keep them going and they all seem to have several bits attached by baler cord. One of our farmer friends Olivier has an ancient tractor which he lends to our English friend Ian. Now this tractor which comes with a wood splitting attachment is still used to split tree trunks into logs of the right size for a wood burner.

Now this tractor is a thing to behold and has lots of bits attached with baler cord but its most endearing feature is that the gears don’t work terribly well but better than the brakes which don’t work at all! Most French farmers have this almost god given talent to mend and keep going tractors for years and years. Olivier is not one of these farmers! Last week Ian borrowed the tractor to go and split some wood for another friend. To get there he had to drive the tractor on local roads. So off he set with this bone shaking contraption. Changing gears is an art form and you have to anticipate when you need to stop well in advance. His wife Sarah was driving their car in front both to show Ian the way and to act as a sort of red flag! All went reasonably well until Ian had to go up a rather steep hill. He found that he was in too high a gear and tried to change down. The tractor was waiting for just this moment and would not go into gear. This of course meant that Ian was now going backwards down the hill with brakes that would not work. Eventually Ian managed to avoid disaster and regain control while he limped home a nervous wreck.

Ian and Sarah have now gone off to Spain to recover! Of course one of the advantages of autumn is that we can get back to some real food. Yesterday we brought home a really terrific boeuf bourguignon from our local charcuterie. Today the wonderful Mrs. Parish has a joint of beef from our butcher for a super roast dinner. Washed down with a haut medoc I think. Now it is still nice outside so I think a little stroll round the nature trail and that should set me up for an aperitif before dinner. On balance I like autumn in rural France.

Bon automne